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How We Talk About the Least Among Us – Poor People in Public Discourse (Annie Selak)

Working-poor

One of the major headlines this week was Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) explaining the GOP healthcare proposal through suggesting that people buy health insurance in place of iPhones. Appearing on CNN’s New Day program, he said:

And you know what? Americans have choices. And they’ve got to make a choice. So maybe, rather than getting that new iPhone that they just love and they want to spend hundreds of dollars on that, maybe they should invest that in their own healthcare. They’ve got to make those decisions themselves.

One problem with this statement is obvious: healthcare costs are much, much more expensive than an iPhone. Even assuming one pays full-price for an iPhone at $600 (a generous assumption), this figure does not come close to healthcare costs for routine healthcare, such as doctor’s visits, to say nothing of cases of chronic illness or health emergencies. Insulin and supplies for Type 1 diabetes cost approximately $10,000 a year without insurance, a price much higher than an iPhone.

Although there is much more that could be said about Chaffetz’s comments, I want to focus on what it reveals about the ways we talk about poor people. While Rep. Chaffetz does not use the term “poor,” it is clear that he is insinuating that poor people are making bad decisions about how to manage their money. He implies that poor people are allocating their resources to frivolous luxuries, such as iPhones, rather than allocating those resources to where they should go, healthcare.  Wrapped up in this statement is the insinuation that poor people make bad choices, further implying that they are poor because of their bad choices. In this statement, he pushes aside any structural reasons that contribute to poverty and instead places the blame squarely on the shoulders of poor people.

These assumptions illustrate the problems with how we talk about poor people in public discourse. Rep. Chaffetz’s statement represents one end of the spectrum, where poor people are depicted as lazy or perpetually bad decision-makers. Their socioeconomic status is depicted as fully their fault. The “Welfare Queen” myth is a prime example of this assumption: happy to live off the generosity of the state while gaming the system to live a life of luxury.

The line of reasoning that poor people are responsible for their misfortune has deep roots in American culture. The Protestant work ethic proclaims that hard work will be rewarded, and lives of sin will be reflected by punishment. Our own assurance of salvation is displayed through the rewards we see in our earthly life. Morality, not circumstances or structures of injustice, are the underlying cause of poverty, according to this tradition. Susan Starr Sered and Maureen Norton-Hawk explain the impact of this phenomenon today: “Echoing the Protestant ethic, Americans have long been inclined to blame social problems on the individual’s moral failures” (p. 12). From this point of view, a person living in poverty can make a few small changes (iPhones for health insurance) and be out of poverty in an instant. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” so the American Dream goes, and you’ll be living the middle-class life of which you’ve always dreamed.

One problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores the reality of the working poor. According to the UC Davis Center for Poverty Research, a full-time minimum wage worker (working 40 hours per week, or 2,080 hours each year) earns $15,080 at the federal minimum wage of $7.25. A two-person household where one person works full-time at a minimum wage job falls below the federal poverty line. This allows no room for sickness or injury, to say nothing of family emergencies, caretaker responsibilities, or rest and vacation. In addition, the “work ethic” narrative explained above neglects the role of structures of injustice. It does not account for racism, transphobia, sexism, or any other discriminatory pattern that contributes to poverty. It neglects the connections between poverty and sexual violence, housing insecurity, incarceration, and drug use. It assumes that all choices are available to all persons at all times. We know the reality to be quite different.

This way of talking about the poor is problematic. However, I also want to propose that the opposite end of the spectrum is damaging as well. This end of the spectrum is quick to romanticize the poor. I find myself at times guilty of this assumption. An example may be helpful, as this tendency is perhaps less familiar. In the wake of Donald Trump’s first executive order to ban immigrants from majority-Muslim nations, stories of people who had been banned filled the news. However, these stories were of the most heart-wrenching situations, such as an Iraqi child separated from his parents prior to surgery or a 4-month old Iranian child in need of open-heart surgery. These situations are certainly real, but they also represent the most sympathetic cases. What about an immigrant who is by all accounts average, kind of a jerk when he is tired, and of average intelligence? Does this person not deserve a chance for a better life? When speaking of the people in poverty, it is easy to turn to stories that seem like reverse fairy tales, such as a mother who seemingly had it all, and then whose life was turned upside down when her spouse and children died in a car accident. We rarely hear average stories, like a person who stopped attending college due to the high costs and instead opted for a job in retail and ten years later is stuck in a cycle of having two minimum wage jobs and working around the clock. In short, we turn to the stories that represent the extremes that reinforce our views without raising uncomfortable questions. While this may be well-intended, it ends up neglecting the large amount of people who fall in the middle yet are still deserving of respect.

In reality, the truth is that most people who are poor are ordinary people. Often times, structures combined with individual choices result in patterns of inescapable poverty. But let’s also be clear: these choices are not choices between trivial things. Rather, many times choices are limited for people living in poverty. Starr Sered and Norton-Hawk elaborate upon the appearance of choice: “The doctrine of choice— as it is employed in American culture— presupposes that the individual is an autonomous social unit and that ‘good’ choices are realistically available” (p. 12) By focusing upon the choices made by people living in poverty, there is often the false impression that all choices are available. I want to affirm that individuals always have an element of choice, while also calling attention to the fact that these choices are constrained by structures of oppression.

It is rarely a choice between healthcare and a phone, partly because if one cannot afford healthcare, cutting costs on a phone is not going to bridge that gap. More often, they are choices between paying a fine in court and feeding one’s children. Let’s consider an example of a mother deciding not to pay a decade-old court fine in order to feed her children each day. Yet, this situation cannot be considered on its own, but must be considered in light of the connection between poverty and incarceration, especially as related to fines. For example, 6 out of 10 jail inmates are awaiting trial and unable to pay fines or bail, not serving time for conviction, according to the Pretrial Justice Institute. Nearly half the women admitted each year to MCI-Framingham, a women’s prison outside of Boston, are awaiting trial (Sered and Norton-Hawk, p. 152). A yearlong NPR study found that nearly a quarter of those in jail for misdemeanor offenses are incarcerated for not paying fees.

This post is not intended to solve the problem of cyclical poverty, but rather to call attention to the problematic ways that we discuss people living in poverty in public discourse. Language is important because it can create a false distance or closeness. By blaming poor people, we wash our hands clean of any responsibility we have to them or complicity in the conditions that allow this to happen. Likewise, romanticizing poor people creates a closeness that is also false, or a cheap grace. It makes us feel like we are in solidarity because we shared a post on Facebook, absolving us of the hard work that solidarity entails. Language can create a distance as well as a sense of patting ourselves on the back, regardless of where that language falls in the spectrum of blame to romanticization. Catholic social ethics calls us to shorten this distance, working to nurture solidarity with the least among us.

Annie Selak is a Ph.D. student in Systematic Theology at Boston College, focusing on ecclesiology. She studies power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, examining leadership structures and dialogue. Prior to studying at Boston College, Annie served as a Lay Ecclesial Minister in the Catholic Church, working with young women at Catholic high schools and universities.

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